“Everything in my neighborhood was gray and dirty. The colors didn’t arrive until Sunday.” This is how comic book artist Tom Scioli describes the harsh childhood of Jack Kirby, co-creator of characters such as Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four and X-Men in the comic biography that arrives in Brazil by Conrad. Born Jacob Kurtzberg, the illustrator Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was one of the main responsible for the creation of the so-called Marvel Universe and also relevant in the rival publisher, DC Comics.
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In Jack Kirby: The Epic Biography of the King of Comics, Scioli runs through the author’s life using the first-person narration feature, which may sound far-fetched, but brings the biographer closer to the reader. It is through this intimate lens that childish fascination with characters from Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, such as Prince Brave and Flash Gordon, that would influence him throughout his career, as well as the vunder-meyses told by his mother, folk stories and mythological figures from Galicia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire, from where their Jewish parents emigrated to the United States.
Scioli, however, also reveals his dark side: Kirby was heated, impulsive and quarrelsome. He took part in wars between youth gangs in his neighborhood and even went so far as to enter the life of crime, as some of his friends did – at the time, he lived in the cinema, but only identified with gangster films. What saved him from a likely early death was the design.
As a teenager, Kirby worked as an animator in the studio of Max Fleischer (author of Popeye and other characters) and later for Horace T. Elmo, when he exercised his versatility by making strips of sailors and gypsies to fictions about time travel. He learned to meet deadlines at Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s studio where he worked shoulder to shoulder with fellow Bob Kane (co-creator of Batman) and Lou Fine (one of The Spirit’s artists).
The end of the 1930s was a turning point in his career: in 1938, Superman first appeared on the pages of the inaugural edition of Action Comics, bringing together the elements of science fiction and pulp literature that enchanted Kirby, but fighting problems from the real world, like corrupt politicians and organized crime, which he knew well.
At that time, he partnered with Joe Simon, with whom he would create dozens of titles and characters. The first superheroes they worked on were mere derivatives, like Blue Beetle, Blue Bolt and Red Raven. However, the mixture of lofty and mundane themes brought by Superman would profoundly mark his later creation, which can be seen in Mercury, a comic about an ancient god facing modern threats – that would echo in Thor in the 1960s and his mixture of Norse mythology , Greek tragedy and science fiction.
The origins of his main creations were already in those shy early years of his career. Kirby made some political cartoons about the war taking shape in Europe – Tom Scioli’s comic reproduces one in which Neville Chamberlain, then Prime Minister of England, runs his hand over the head of a snake with Hitler’s face digesting the newly invaded Czechoslovakia in its belly. This experience provided the ideological scope for his first major creation, in partnership with Joe Simon, for Timely Comics (which was to become Marvel): Captain America, who came out punching Hitler on his first cover in 1940 – although magazine was dated March 1941, it was already on newsstands the previous December, even before the entry of the United States in World War II.
The hero lifted Kirby to fame for the first time, but it yielded threats from the German-American Federation, a Nazi organization based in the United States that was in operation between 1936 and 1941. However, the then mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, confessed fan of comics, he offered political and police protection for Timely Comics to continue publishing the Captain.
The greatest irony in Kirby’s life came in 1943, when he was drafted into the US Army. Other artists, like Stan Lee – with whom Kirby never got along, but who would end up being his most prolific partner -, were also summoned, but held positions that kept them away from the front. Kirby, on the other hand, has been targeted by the Germans several times and has barely survived the many shootings he faced.
“While I was shot by the real Nazis, Captain America was shot at the cinema. The film was crap, on a zero budget,” he says in Scioli’s HQ. “Joe and I didn’t get a penny from the movie.
Our names didn’t even appear. “The lack of recognition – in financial terms, not prestige – is a keynote throughout Kirby’s life.
After the trauma of the war, which the artist would portray in several of his later stories, Kirby resumed his partnership with Joe Simon, but the comics were no longer the same. Interest in superheroes had been on the decline since the mid-1940s, but it sank once and for all in the 1950s, especially after the moralist crusade undertaken by psychologist Fredric Wertham, whose book The Seduction of the Innocent accused – without any scientific evidence – comics to transform child readers into young delinquents. The unfounded statements found a chorus in furious parents and in the context of the Macarist persecution that dominated the USA, resulting in the creation, in 1954, of the Comics Code Authority, a code of self-censorship of comics that was in force for half a century.
In this crisis scenario, Jack Kirby joined another of the most important comic artists of the time, Wallace Wood, one of the founders of Mad magazine, and the screenwriter brothers Dick and Dave Wood – who were not Wallace’s relatives – to launch Sky Masters of Space Force. The daily strip published between 1958 and 1961 reflected the era of the space race and was recently assembled in a single volume in Brazil by Pipoca & Nanquim. In the strip, Kirby and the Woods dealt with the problems of colonizing space, not imagining the distant future – as science fiction of the 1950s did with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Robert A. Heinlein. Instead, the narrative arcs imagined the first human in space, a religious saboteur on the first space station, a complicated landing by an astronaut in the ocean, among other more realistic themes.
When Kirby lost a legal dispute over the rights of the strip, he found himself again at the bottom of the well and forced to turn to the man who, he suspected, had been the pivot of his first Timely / Marvel resignation years ago: Stan Lee. Interestingly, Marvel was also at its worst. “The comic book division breathed through devices,” recalls Lee in the comic. When Kirby entered his office, “people were taking the furniture away.” Despite the differences between them, the biggest partnership in the history of comics began.
From 1961 onwards, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee participated both in the elaboration of concepts for new heroes, like Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, and in the direct creation of characters such as Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor , Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, Inhumans, Silver Surfer, Galactus, among others. Perhaps Kirby’s most important idea was to merge the stories of different magazines, making her characters cohabit the same fictional universe – as was already the case with the Justice League in DC – and paving the way for increasingly complex plots , narrated in several parallel and simultaneous publications, key to Marvel’s success in the 1960s and 1970s – and emulated in the company’s most recent films.
In addition to creating new heroes, Kirby revitalized directly or indirectly 1940s creations, such as Prince Namor, the Daredevil and, of course, his Captain America. “Like me, the Captain was a man displaced in time. Back in a world he didn’t recognize. The war had turned him into someone else,” says Kirby in one of the reminiscences of the biography. “I felt more and more like an old man out of tune. Things were changing very fast.” Kirby, who almost died frozen in the war, caused the Captain to be rescued from a block of ice to a world he did not understand and in which his existence was anachronistic.
In the 1970s, Kirby had a quick but relevant time at DC. Tired of not receiving credit at Marvel, he took a pantheon of ideas to the rival publisher, where he modernized Superman, created the New Gods and turned Stan Lee into a villain with Funky Flashman, a playful satire by the writer, who he considered an opportunist and profiteer other people’s work. In 1976, however, he returned to Casa das Ideias and created the last of his main works, Os Eternos, whose adaptation opens in theaters this year.
Scioli’s biography does not deal much with Kirby’s personal life, implying at all times that he worked too hard to enjoy family life with his wife and four children. But there are pages narrated by his wife, Roz Goldstein, giving a tasty glimpse into his private life – like when she tried to teach him how to ride a bicycle, as an adult.
Kirby has always mulled over the lack of recognition and Scioli comes to embrace his paranoia – such as that Darth Vader was a copy of his Doctor Doom, villain of the Fantastic Four. At the end of his life, he ended up receiving credit for his contributions and is seen as one of the main responsible for the establishment of the Marvel Universe. This whole journey began when he found a pulp magazine thrown in the gutter of the neighborhood in which he lived as a child, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and was enchanted by the colorful spaceship on its cover. Without Jack Kirby, contemporary pop culture would be very different – and less colorful.
Author: Tom Scioli
Translation: Érico Assis
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